Colum McCann. Luck of the Irish? Or just a fine, fine novelist?
“A summer flood came and our draft horse got caught in the river. The river smashed against stones and the sound of it to me was like the turning of locks. It was silage time and the water smelled of grass. The draft horse, Father’s favorite, had stepped in the river for a sniff maybe and she was caught, couldn’t move, her foreleg trapped between rocks. Father found her and called Katie! above the wailing rain. I was in the barn waiting for drips on my tongue from the ceiling hole.”
These are the opening words to Colum McCann’s short story “Everything in This Country Must,” first published in The Atlantic in 2001 and later published in book form (along with another short story and a novella) by Macmillan/Picador.
I met Colum McCann in June of 2005 at the Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival in Colorado. Colum was part of an impressive lineup of Irish authors, including Robert Boswell, Grande Dame Edna O’Brien, Polly Devlin, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Muldoon, and Marie Ponsot. (Photo of Colum by Brendan Bourke.) I knew that I was in the presence of a writer
whose greatness was as apparent as his magnetism. Colum, (born in Dublin in 1965), was approachable, handsome, and sensual (with a lovely wife). A few minutes later, as he began to read the 14-page short story, “Everything in This Country Must,” we were quickly enfolded in the charm of his Irish voice. Afterwards, we watched the short film based on the story, which had won 16 top awards at major film festivals and was nominated for an Academy Award Oscar.
The story is about a work horse that gets caught in the roaring creek, the farmer who can’t save his prize Belgium, the teenage daughter who’s trying to help, the British soldiers who rescue the horse, the same soldiers who, two years prior, had accidentally crushed the car in which the farmer’s son and wife were sitting. It all comes full circle. The farmer is in such deep dark place of grief and impotence and anger and fear that in the end, after the soldiers are gone, he goes to the barn and kills the horse he loves because, perhaps, he cannot bear the thought that he must forgive the country,and the soldiers, who took his wife from him. An entire, exquisitely wrought and painful world is contained in this short story.
Colum’s sixth novel, Let the Great World Spin, (Random House) is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist, and was called “One of the most electric, profound novels of the year” by The NY Times Book Review. It was also just picked by Amazon.com as Editors’ #1 Pick of their Top Ten for 2009. Colum’s novel Dancer (Picador, 2004), received the prestigious Irish Novel of the Year award. CLICK HERE for dates of Colum’s November and December, 2009, New York and Amsterdam appearances.
NOW, I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to Nuala O’Faolain, who also spoke at the Aspen Summer Words Festival in 2005. Known as Ireland’s female counterpart to Frank McCourt, her memoir Are You Somebody? was on the NY Times bestseller list for 17 weeks. Nuala was bold, outspoken, funny, had no fear, and was passionate about the rights of women in Ireland. She sat down to write her life story with no intention of publication – and thus “told all” in the book. She was hilarious and impassioned and took over the panel discussion in Aspen in a way that thrilled all of us in the audience.
“I was only writing my life story,” she said, “with no intention of it being read by anyone.” One day, she was walking down the lane and a tall woman came toward her and congratulated her on the book. “I told her, I’d never intended to get all this attention, and the woman said to me, ‘Stand by it. It’s your life. Stand by it.’”
I was so moved by her belief in the importance of women’s stories that I gifted her with a copy of In Search of Kinship, which now seems like a presumptuous thing to do. A week later, I received a note from her. She told me that she read my memoir on the return flight, cover to cover. And when she finished, “I left it on my seat in the plane, so that it would gift the next traveler in the same way it had gifted me.”
Nuala died three years later, in 2008, of lung cancer. Her message to us, even now, is to stand by our lives, to recognize that each emotion we experience ties us more deeply to all of humanity. We do not need to destroy that which we love the most because we fear our own vulnerability in the face of that love. We only need to move more deeply into what it means to be a human being.